Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Marking 35 years as an automotive machinist in Northfield October 3, 2018

Randy at work in the NAPA machine shop in Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


MORE AND MORE, Randy hears the question, “When are you retiring?”

Not because people want him to retire. But because customers worry that he will retire before he completes work for them.

Today marks 35 years since my husband became the automotive machinist at Parts Department, Inc., Northfield, aka NAPA. He’s been in the profession even longer, beginning first as a parts man in Montana, Rochester and Faribault before shifting to automotive machining in Faribault, then Owatonna and for the long term in Northfield.


Randy grinds a flywheel. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Thirty-five years. It’s a long time to work in one place turning brake rotors, resurfacing heads, grinding valves and flywheels, and doing a multitude of other automotive machining tasks I don’t understand. He’s a skilled tradesman, a pro whose work is in high demand. Few do what Randy does. Because of that and his exceptional skills, he’s in high demand. Locally, regionally and beyond.


Randy’s toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I’m proud of Randy. He is smart, talented and driven to do the best he can for his customers. He works hard. He works long days—up until a few years ago six days a week. And up until last year, he had only 10 days of vacation annually. Now he gets twenty.


Just one example of all the work that awaits Randy in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


His farm upbringing instilled in him a strong work ethic. That and the cost of health insurance will keep him from retiring for a few years yet. Hopefully his back and his feet will hold out. I’ve seen the physical toll of a labor intensive, on-your-feet job.

For now Randy’s customers need not worry. He has no plans for immediate retirement. But good luck finding someone to do their machining work after he retires…hopefully in a few years.

PLEASE JOIN ME in congratulating Randy on 35 years as the automotive machinist at NAPA in Northfield.

Click here to read a post I wrote about Randy on this 30-year anniversary.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Honoring my husband as he marks 30 years with the same employer October 12, 2013

5:48 a.m.

The numbers on the clock radio glow red in the early dark of an October morning as he leans across the pillow to kiss my cheek, his beard brushing my skin.

Only minutes earlier, I awakened to the angular slant of light from the bathroom cutting across the carpet outside our bedroom, the rush of water from the faucet, the jingle of coins scooped from the dresser top into his work uniform pocket.

In minutes, after he’s laced his grimy Red Wing work shoes, I will hear the door shut, imagine him pulling the rag rug into place that protects the 1995 Chrysler upholstery from grease, picture him heading out of Faribault for the 22-minute commute to work.

For 30 years he’s followed this routine, although not always leaving the house before 6 a.m. But he is busy, crazy busy, in the NAPA automotive machine shop. This is nothing new; it’s been this way for three decades.

My husband at work in the automotive machine shop where he is employed.

My husband at work in the NAPA automotive machine shop where he has worked for 30 years. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

He, my husband Randy, possesses a strong work ethic that drives him to work well before the appointed 8 a.m. start and to leave well after the appointed 5 p.m. end of his work day and to labor most Saturdays. When he takes a rare week day off—from only 10 annual vacation days—he is stressed even more trying to meet customer demands.

Every time he takes a vacation day, and those are seldom and never more than five at a time unless combined with a holiday, he must labor doubly hard. Long days before he leaves. Long days afterward. Often it hardly seems worth the time away.

Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop.

Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But Randy sometimes needs a break from pressing customers and the pile of work that never diminishes. His skills—the turning of brake rotors, the resurfacing of heads, the grinding of valves and flywheels and a multitude of other automotive machining tasks I don’t understand—is in high demand. Few do what he does and he’s good at it. Probably the best in southeastern Minnesota as evidenced by his wide regional customer base and the endless work load.

Everyone wants their car, their truck, their SUV, their van, their tractor, their combine, their snowblower, their lawnmower, their recreational vehicles, their whatever, repaired first.

In 2008, Randy was recognized by his employer for 25 years of service to Parts Department, Inc., Northfield. Randy received a plaque, dinner out and a drill.

In 2008, Randy was recognized by his employer for 25 years of service to Parts Department, Inc., Northfield. Randy received a plaque, dinner out and an air wrench. Photo by Dan Christopherson.

Did you catch that early on noted time frame of 30 years?

Randy grinds a flywheel.

Randy grinds a flywheel. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

October marks 30 years since Randy started working as the automotive machinist for Parts Department, Inc. (NAPA), Northfield.

My husband's NAPA automotive machine shop toolbox.

My husband’s NAPA automotive machine shop toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Thirty years at one business. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Even more remarkable, Randy’s labored in the automotive field for just shy of 40 years.  Only two years out of high school and with two years of trade school education, he packed his car in the spring of 1976 for Plentywood, Montana. He lasted there as a parts man for a month, returning from the middle of nowhere to settle in southeastern Minnesota.

My husband at work with a hammer, a tool he uses often as an automotive machinist.

Randy at work. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Randy was employed as a parts man in Rochester, eventually relocating to K & G Auto Parts in Faribault. There he worked as a parts man before moving into the machine shop and learning that skilled trade. He also worked in an Owatonna machine shop until the previous owner of the Northfield NAPA enticed Randy to join his business.

He genuinely loves his job, working solo in the machine shop, although Randy says he always dreamed of being a rural mail carrier. Had he chosen that career path, he would be retired by now, collecting a pension. Taking vacations. Sleeping in. Saturdays off.

Instead, dirt and grease outline his fingernails. Faded white scars mar his skin. Flecks of errant metal, from work projects, lie beneath the surface of his skin.  Sometimes, too often, his back aches. He rises early. Works long days. Sometimes falls asleep in the recliner as the evening fades. Takes well-deserved Sunday afternoon naps.

He’s worked hard to provide a steady income for our family, allowing me to stay home and raise our three children and work part-time from home and continue to pursue my passions in writing and photography. We are not wealthy in monetary terms. But the mortgage is paid on our modest house, food is always on the table, clothing on our backs, bills covered.

And it is because of my farm-raised, blue collar hardworking husband.

Please join me in congratulating Randy on his 30-year anniversary as the automotive machinist at Parts Department, Inc., Northfield. And also wish him a happy birthday, for today, October 12, is his birthday.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How a loser becomes a champion August 29, 2011

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Northfield NAPA employees, spouses/significant others and guests gathered recently for a backyard pizza party that included bean bag and ladder golf competitions on a perfect summer evening.

IF YOU WERE TO RATE your athletic abilities on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 ranking as Olympic status, how would you rank yours?

I don’t hesitate. Mine would fall off the scale in the minus category. I doubt I possess an athletic bone in my body. And if I do, I haven’t found, or even looked for, it. And I don’t care. I simply don’t care. Sports have never held priority in life. I don’t watch sports, care which team wins or loses, or think athletes are God’s gift to the world.

Personally, my minimal sports participation typically does not involve anything intensely competitive.

That is why, every January and every August, I cringe when I hear that sporting competitions are part of my husband’s company Christmas and pizza parties. I suppose you could then ask, “Why do you go to these parties, Audrey?” And I would tell you because of the superb food and the people.

Everything is homemade, even the dough for the pizza crust.

Fresh ingredients top the pizzas made by Dan, this year with two in-training assistants.

The pizzas are baked in a wood-fired outdoor oven. I would rather eat at Dan and Jan's house any day over dining at a restaurant. And I'm not saying that because Dan's the boss. He and Jan are fantastic cooks.

I’ve tried, oh, yes, I’ve tried to level the playing field. “Can we please play Scrabble?” I’ve asked the husband’s boss several times. Dan just smiles and places me in a bracket along with all the other spouses/significant others and employees. I play along, putting minimal effort into whatever event because I know I’m just not good enough to win. You might say I have a loser’s attitude.

About now you’re thinking, well, with an attitude like that…, and you would be right. But if you were the last kid picked for the softball team, if you were the skinny-armed girl the brawny boys chose to plow through when playing Red Rover, if you struggled with physical education classes under the duress of teachers who expected you to perform as well as the best athlete in the class, if you grew up on a farm and never had the opportunity to participate in sports, wouldn’t you possess an athletic inferiority complex, too?

I thought so.

At the holiday party, I never know which I should wish for—to shoot pool, throw darts or play Wii bowling. All, in my unathletic hands, are potentially dangerous. Thus far I have not inflicted any injuries upon groins or eyes while lining up pool shots or throwing darts. But Wii bowling, which I have not yet attempted, makes me nervous. If anyone could manage to wipe out the boss’ big screen TV, it would be me.

On a recent weekend, when we were in the boss’ backyard for the annual pizza party and I was on deck to play ladder golf with my husband as my partner, I made sure I was flinging the dual golf balls toward the public walking path and not toward the neighbor’s house windows.

Smart woman, I am.

The spouse and I got a bye on the first ladder golf round because the other team didn’t show up. We won the second game in just two throws each. Then suddenly we were in the championship game. How did that happen? I started to get all nervous because a crowd was gathering to watch. If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s a group watching me compete. Throws my game, like I ever had a game anyway.

Neither the husband or I could throw worth a darn. But then neither could the dad half of the other team. The 12-year-old was making us all look like losers, although even I was aiming better than my spouse.

Here I am, posing like one of the girls on The Price is Right. I will keep my day job as a writer and photographer.

After what seemed like an interminably long time of tossing into the blinding sun and facing those pressing crowds (OK, more like a handful of people), we won. I had actually, really, truly won a competitive sporting event.

And I got a prize—a humungous cooler on wheels—which would not fit into the trunk of our car but which my spouse managed to shove onto the back seat. We do not own a compact car; it is a 1995 Chrysler Concorde.

At first I was super excited about my prize. But then I got realistic. I started thinking: “When will we ever use a cooler that big? We’ll need a lot of ice. Hmmm, that will take up a significant storage space that we don’t have in our house. If we haul that in the car, we won’t have room for the boy in the backseat.”

For now we’ve stashed the oversized cooler in the basement and, honestly, it’s bigger than the dorm fridge we have down there for the pop and beer. You could fit a small child inside the cooler. It would make a good toy box if I had kids young enough to need a toy box.

I expect we’ll lug it up the stairs next spring when our youngest graduates from high school and we need a cooler to stash beverages for the graduation party. After that…, well, I don’t know.

But I’ve been thinking… Anybody want to come over for a little Scrabble competition? I’ve got this great prize…

JUST IN CASE THE BOSS is reading this post, thank you for the cooler. It really is a nice prize as is the gift certificate my spouse won to an area chain restaurant. But if I were you, I wouldn’t put me in the Wii bowling competition at the holiday party. Just sayin’.

I could have won this umbrella-dual folding lawn chair set. I like my cooler just fine, thank you.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Prairie poetry in Fergus Falls June 12, 2011

SATURDAY MORNING MY HUSBAND and I hit the road, heading north on Interstate 35 and then west on Interstate 94 to the west central part of Minnesota.

This was our destination:

It's approaching noon on Saturday, and we've nearly reached our destination, Fergus Falls.

Because of this:

The first of my four Roadside Poetry billboards in a stretch of ditch along North Tower Road in Fergus Falls.

I got word last Monday that my winning Roadside Poetry Project spring poem will come down on June 17, to be replaced with a summer poem. (Click here to read a previous post about my poem.) So if I wanted to see “Cold earth warmed by budding sun sprouts the seeds of vernal equinox” and my name—all sprawled across four Burma Shave style billboards—we had to get our butts up to Fergus Falls.

So we did, making the 200-mile trip this weekend under big skies that stretched all the way to the Dakotas.

After a few stops, including a swing into Melrose to view an historic Catholic church (more on that in another post), we eventually reached Exit 54 into Fergus some 3 1/2 hours later. We followed Highway 210/West Lincoln Avenue, turned onto North Tower Road and drove past the NAPA Auto Parts store before reaching those poetry billboards. I mention NAPA because Randy works at the NAPA store in Northfield as an automotive machinist and we found it interesting that my poems just happened to be right down the road from the Fergus NAPA store.

We passed right by the NAPA store to reach my billboards just down the road.

When Randy pulled to the side of North Tower Road by my billboards, I determined this was not the safest place to park. So we pulled into the Fastenal parking lot and then descended the steep ditch, wading through tall, and wet, prairie grasses—sweet clover, June grass, alfalfa—and more than a few thistles.

Our shoes and jean legs were soon soaked with moisture. But, you know, that really didn’t matter. I was so focused on viewing my four-line, spring-themed poem and on taking photos that the wet feet and denim seemed more a nuisance than anything worth fretting over on a glorious early Saturday afternoon.

And so, billboard by billboard, we worked our way down the road ditch, stopping by each sign for photos. Eventually I handed the camera over to Randy, who managed to figure out how to turn on the camera, focus it, compose and snap some pictures.

Me posing by the last of the four billboards with my spring poem.

This may be the first and last time my poetry, and my name, will be on billboards, so I savored every letter, every word, every line, every billboard...

Then I snapped this image of my husband, who had plucked a spear of prairie grass and slipped it into his mouth. The frame marked one of those quick clicks of the camera that resulted in a photo that you could never recapture given its spontaneity.

A sweet shot of my husband as he walked away from the final billboard.

I’m uncertain how long we worked the road ditch along North Tower. But long enough to appreciate that this spot on the edge of town, under a sky that always feels bigger, wider, on the open prairie, perfectly fit a poem written by me, a southwestern Minnesota prairie native.

I crouched to capture this image which focuses on the road ditch prairie grasses.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling